Skip to main content

Historical Books of the Old Testament


The value of classifying certain books of the Old Testament as historical depends on a correct understanding and definition of ancient Hebrew historiography. The aims and methods of the writers of the Old Testament books have been studied and grasped more adequately during the first half of the 20th century than they had been earlier. Documents of the Catholic Church's magisterium, especially the pontifical biblical commission's decrees of June 30, 1909 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 1 (Rome 1909) 567569; Enchiridion biblicum (4th ed. Rome 1961) 324331], and the same commission's letter to Cardinal Suhard of Jan. 16, 1948 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 40 (1948) 4548; Enchiridion biblicum (4th ed. Rome 1961) 577581] reflect this development.

Although the classical Hebrew division of the Old Testament into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings gives no explicit recognition of history-writing in the Bible, it has long been the custom among Christian scholars to categorize some books of the Old Testament as historical, or histories. St. cyril of jerusalem (c. a.d. 348) divided the Old Testament into four sections: the Law, the historical books, the poetic books, and the Prophets [Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne, 161 v. (Paris 185766) 33:500]. In the second category, the historical books, he listed Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Pope St. innocent i (c. a.d. 405) added to these, in his category of histories, the books of Job, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees [H. Wurm, Apollinaris 12 (1939) 7576]. This listing of the historical books may find some support in the Septuagint.

Modern introductions to the Bible differ among themselves when they classify certain Old Testament books as historical. Some keep the Pentateuch distinct from the category of history, while others label it historical. Some dispense with the category of history altogether and prefer the ancient Hebrew divisions of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, with a fourth section for the deuterocanonical books. (see canon, biblical 2, history of old testament.)

Modern study has shown that there is real historiography in the Old Testament, but that the classification of specific books as historical is a delicate task. Many qualifications have to be made regarding the historical character of the individual books and passages. Many distinctions have to be made between ancient and modern historiography and between ordinary historiography and the writing of salvation history among ancient writers of history.

There is a wide range of historicity in the Old Testament, from the chronicle-like writing in parts of the Books of samuel and kings to the highly imaginative story of the Book of tobit. The literary form of the Book of judith, which many in the past have designated as historical, is certainly nonhistorical.

See Also: history and historicity (geschichtlichkeit).

Bibliography: m. rehm, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 4:791792. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 100712. a. robert and a. tricot, Guide to the Bible, tr. e. p. arbez and m. p. mcguire, 2 v. (Tournai-New York 195155; v.1 rev. and enl. 1960) 1:282314. a. lemonnyer, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 1:588596.

[m. strange]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Historical Books of the Old Testament." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 12 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Historical Books of the Old Testament." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (April 12, 2019).

"Historical Books of the Old Testament." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 12, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.